Skip to main content
Close

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for announcements, education- related info, and more!

Close
Menu

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism

View Transcript

Depicting the Local in American Literature, 1865-1900

Set in the antebellum American South, but written after Emancipation, Mark Twain’s novel The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn remains a classic of American Literature. This episode compares Twain’s depiction of Southern vernacular culture to that of Charles Chestnutt and Kate Chopin, and in doing so, introduces the hallmarks of American Realism.

Instructor Overview

Midway through his adventures, Huck Finn comes to the “strange and unregular” conclusion that telling the truth might be the best way both to narrate his experiences and to accomplish his own ends. In a speech that is characteristically simultaneously humorous and profound, Mark Twain has Huck meditate on the nature of truth: I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place, is taking considerable many resks, though I ain’t had no experience, and can’t say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here’s a case where I’m blest if it don’t look to me like the truth is better, and actuly safer, than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it’s so kind of strange and unregular. Huck’s radical decision to “up and tell the truth” despite the “resks” epitomizes the stylistic and thematic transformations shaping American literature during the second half of the nineteenth century. A new commitment to the accurate representation of American life as it was experienced by ordinary Americans infused literature with a new “realist” aesthetic. Realism was characterized by its uncompromising literal representations of daily life, and by its resistance to the emotional extravagance and fanciful settings that had characterized Romantic and sentimental fiction. This passion for finding and presenting the truth led many American practitioners of realism to explore characters, places, and events that had never before seemed appropriate subject matter for literature. American audiences, for their part, evinced a new willingness to read about unrefined and even ugly subjects in the interest of gaining authentic accounts of the world around them.

Many writers expressed their realist aesthetic by emphasizing the particularities of geographic settings, evoking the distinctive customs, speech, and culture of specific regions of the United States in their work. This attention to the peculiarities of place flourished after the Civil War, as Americans began to conceive of themselves as part of a single, unified nation and as curiosity grew about regions of the country that had once seemed too far off and strange to matter. Regional realism may also have developed as an act of nostalgia and conservation in response to the rapid postwar industrialization and homogenization that was threatening older, traditional ways of life. By chronicling the specific details of regional culture, regional realism preserved a record of ways of life and habits of speech that were suddenly in danger of disappearing as a result of the newspapers, railroads, and mass-produced consumer goods that were standardizing American culture. Many regionalist writers became accomplished at transcribing the authentic rhythms and idioms of local dialect in their efforts to make their characters’ dialogue mimic the way people really talked. Literalized, phonetic spellings forced readers to pronounce words as speakers of a regional dialect would pronounce them.

A commitment to capturing accurately the realities and peculiarities of regional culture distinguishes all of the authors featured in Unit 8, “Regional Realism: Depicting the Local in American Literature, 1865-1900.” As they recorded and commented on the distinctive speech and customs that distinguished specific geographical areas, these writers also struggled with the role of class and gender in local life and in the construction of American identity. This unit explores the regional representations of a wide variety of late-nineteenth-century texts, including works composed by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Bret Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charles W. Chesnutt, Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa), Alexander Posey, and Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin). The unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the way these writers represented the distinguishing characteristics of American life in the South, in the West, in New England, and on the Great Plains. The video for Unit 8 focuses on three influential practitioners of regional realism in the South: Mark Twain, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Kate Chopin. Twain used realism and regional dialect in his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to challenge readers to come to new conclusions about the role of race and class in America. His complex portrait of race relations in the 1840s continues to inspire controversy. Charles W. Chesnutt adopted the regional realist style to explore the contradictions of life on the “color line” between black and white society and to challenge racial stereotypes. Kate Chopin depicted the exotic culture of Creole and Cajun Louisiana, offering a controversial exploration of the constraints placed on women’s individuality and sexuality in the process. All of these writers were committed to providing realistic representations of their local cultures and to constructing complicated, believable characters who faced complex moral dilemmas about the nature of their American identities.

In its coverage of these writers and texts, the video introduces students to the basic tenets of the aesthetic of regional realism and foregrounds the movement’s relationship to the social and political challenges facing post-Civil War America. How do these texts both reflect and construct cultural values? How do regionalist writings portray the distinct cultures and experiences of different ethnic groups? How do they explore issues of gender? How do regional realist texts record the linguistic specificity of regional speech? Why were representations of dialect so popular in late-nineteenth-century America? In what ways did regional texts participate in the construction of a broader, more general “American” character? Unit 8 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials expand the video’s introduction to regional realism by exploring writers who represented different regions and different concerns about class and ethnicity, such as Bret Harte (who focused on the culture of the Old West in California), Joel Chandler Harris (a white writer who recorded the dialect and folktales of African American slave culture), and Zitkala-Sa (a Sioux woman who found herself caught between European American customs and traditional Indian culture).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate these writers within several of the historical contexts and artistic movements that shaped their texts: (1) the development of “parlor culture” and ideals of domestic gentility; (2) Native American oral and visual autobiographical expressions; (3) the role of journalistic ideals in the development of the realist aesthetic; (4) the centrality of the “trickster” figure to expressions of ethnic identity; (5) the importance of developments in the study of anatomy and photography in visual expressions of realism.

The archive and the curriculum materials suggest how these authors and texts relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How have American ideas about realistic representation and the possibility of recording “truth” changed over time? How have realist ideals shaped contemporary aesthetics? How did the use of dialect impact later authors’ dialogue and poetry? How have American ideas about the relationship between specific regions and the country as a whole changed over time?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. understand the basic tenets of realism;
  2. discuss the impact on American literature and culture of regionalist writers’ emphasis on geographical settings and distinctive customs;
  3. discuss the impact of race and gender on representations of regional cultures;
  4. discuss the cultural values and assumptions that inform phonetic representations of racial and regional dialects in late-nineteenth-century American literature.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Charles W. Chesnutt, Kate Chopin

Who’s Interviewed:
Jocelyn Chadwick, associate professor of education (Harvard University); Emory Elliott, professor of English (University of California, Riverside); Bruce Michelson, professor of English (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign); Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history (Princeton University)

Points Covered:

  • ntroduction to the emergence of new, realistic sounding voices in American literature after the Civil War. Writers who represented regions, classes, and races that had not traditionally been given a voice in American literature demanded representation in the popular imagination and the right to satirize and criticize America in new ways. The American South was an important site for the formation of the literary movement, often called “regional realism.”
  • Samuel Clemens–better known as Mark Twain–transformed American literature with his skilled representation of regional dialect and his willingness to confront Americans with the difficult issues of racial and class inequality. Favoring the real over the fantastic or the romantic, Twain could make readers uncomfortable with his unsparing representations of the often unpleasant reality of the human condition. At the same time, his satiric portraits of American life often charm readers with their humor and comedy. His masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continues to create controversy for its vivid evocation of racial tensions.
  • Charles W. Chesnutt, a writer of mixed African American and white descent, created psychologically complex characters and representations of vernacular speech to challenge American stereotypes about race. His stories are often preoccupied with the problems faced by people of mixed blood who lived on what he called “the color line” between black and white society.
  • Kate Chopin set her stories and novels within the distinctive culture of Louisiana Creole and Cajun society. Exploring the frustration of women bound by restrictive social conventions, her work is feminist in its implications. Chopin’s frank depictions of both female sexual passion and discontent within marriage made her work extremely controversial in her own time.
  • These southern practitioners of regional realism rejected idealistic romanticism in order to bear accurate witness to the reality of the world around them. In the process, they created complex characters faced with challenging moral dilemmas. Their work opened up new voices and new insights that democratized American literature and transformed national conceptions of what it means to be American.

Preview

  • Preview the video: American culture was changing rapidly in the post-Civil War era: new technologies such as the telegraph and the railroad bound the continent together, postwar racial tensions brought the issue of the “color line” to the forefront of American consciousness, and a new commitment to realistic representation transformed literary style. Writers responded to these cultural developments by producing texts that paid close attention to the specifics of people and place in particular regions of the country, evoking the distinctive culture of areas of America that had not been previously represented. The South was an important site for the development of this movement, often called “regional realism.” Mark Twain used realism and regional dialect in his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to challenge readers to come to new conclusions about the role of race and class in America. His complex evocation of racial tension continues to inspire controversy. Charles W. Chesnutt adopted the regional realist style to explore the contradictions of life on the “color line” between black and white society and to challenge racial stereotypes. Kate Chopin depicted the exotic culture of Creole and Cajun Louisiana, offering a controversial exploration of the constraints placed on women’s individuality and sexuality in the process. All of these writers were committed to providing realistic representations of their local cultures and to constructing complicated, believable characters who faced complex moral dilemmas about the nature of their American identities.
  • What to think about while watching: How do these authors challenge Americans to grapple with difficult issues regarding social class, region, and race? How do these writers react against romantic conventions to create a new aesthetic in American literature? Why is the realistic representation of dialect so important in late nineteenth-century American literature? How do these depictions of regional life expand traditional ideas about American identity? How did the regional realist movement impact subsequent American fiction?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 8 expands on the issues outlined in the video to further explore the scope and impact of regional realism on American literature and culture in areas outside of the South. The curriculum materials offer background on Native American, African American, and European American writers who represent the language, customs, and cultures of New England, California, and the midwestern plains. The unit offers contextual background to expand on the video’s introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped these realistic depictions of life in regional America.

Suggested Author Pairings

Joel Chandler Harris, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Alexander Posey
Authors of stories and sketches written in racialized dialect, Harris, Chesnutt, and Posey attempted to capture the rhythms and idioms of African American and Native American English speech. Harris and Chesnutt shared an interest in recording traditional African American folktales, but they created very different characters through which to narrate their stories. While Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius on the surface resembles Harris’s Uncle Remus–a stereotype of a contented slave anxious to serve and entertain white people–Uncle Julius is actually much more crafty and subversive, and much more skilled in looking out for his own best interest. Race is an important distinction between these authors. Critics sometimes argue that, as a white writer, Harris was not always sensitive to or aware of the cultural implications of the African American stories he recorded. Posey and Chesnutt, on the other hand, were of Native American and African American ancestry, respectively, though they sometimes found that their positions as writers and recorders of the culture distanced them from those communities.

Mark Twain and Bret Harte
Twain and Harte were humorists and journalists who got their start in the American West and ended up creating archetypal characters in American literature. While Harte’s stories have shaped the genre of the Western, Twain created the naive country boy narrator in Huckleberry Finn. Harte’s work can be much more sentimental than Twain’s, perhaps explaining why he fell out of popular favor as realism gained strength over the course of the century. Twain, on the other hand, remained a best-selling author, a celebrity, and an icon of American literature until his death and long after.

Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Kate Chopin
Authors whose stories and novels participate in the regionalist tradition, Jewett, Freeman, and Chopin all focus on the position of women within the regional settings they so evocatively describe. Jewett and Freeman chronicle the impact of economic depression and lingering Puritan values on communities in rural New England, while Chopin records the French Catholic flavor of life in New Orleans and rural Louisiana. Chopin depicts Louisiana as in some ways less severe and repressed than Jewett and Freeman’s New England, and her frank portrayal of women’s sexual desire made her work more controversial than theirs. Still, she shares with Jewett and Freeman an interest in the effects of rigid social conventions on both downtrodden and rebellious women.

Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa) and Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)
The fact that these authors are listed under both an Anglicized name and a traditional Native American name is significant, for they are characterized by the tensions created by their attempts to mediate between white and traditional Indian culture. Both Sioux Indians, they attended white boarding schools and colleges and found value in their Euro-American educations even though they were never completely at home in white culture. At the same time, they found that their acculturation into white ways separated them from other Native Americans. Eastman found himself in the awkward position of being a “‘white doctor’ who was also an Indian,” while Zitkala-Sa felt out of place as “neither a wild Indian nor a tame one.”

Glossary

Boston marriage – The nineteenth-century term used to describe two women who shared a household in a marriagelike arrangement. Women involved in “Boston marriages” lived independently of men and drew emotional and material support from one another. It is not clear whether all or most “Boston marriages” involved sexual relationships–some probably did and others probably did not. In any case, couples like Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields certainly found important companionship and support in their intense bond with one another.

coup counting – A common Native American practice of making a historical record of an individual warrior’s feats of bravery. Each time he touched an enemy in battle, either with his hand or with a special “coup stick,” a Native American warrior acquired prestige and power–and the right to brag about his military successes.

dialect – A unique, regional variant of a language in which pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary diverge from standard conventions. Many regionalist writers became accomplished at transcribing the authentic rhythms and idioms of local dialect in their efforts to make their characters’ dialogue mimic as closely as possible the way people really talked. Literalized, phonetic spellings forced readers to pronounce words as speakers of a regional dialect would pronounce them.

Ghost Dance – A Native American response to Euro-American encroachments on their land and way of life. A powerful apocalyptic vision of the overthrow of white domination and a return to traditional Native American ways, the Ghost Dance sparked a pan-Indian, intertribal movement that frightened white authorities with its intensity. Started by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who believed himself to be a Messianic figure, the Ghost Dance involved adopting traditional clothing and customs, singing and chanting traditional songs, and participating in a trance-inducing round dance designed to inspire dead Indian ancestors to return and reclaim their land. The movement ended tragically when white authorities killed 150 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee for their involvement in the Ghost Dance religion.

parlor – In nineteenth-century homes, parlors were formal rooms set aside for social ceremonies such as receiving guests or hosting tea parties. Many Americans believed that parlors enabled them to enjoy the refinement and comfort of respectable family living. Designed for display, the parlor was generally the “best room” in the house and usually contained furnishings and knick-knacks that cost more than the objects in the house that were intended for everyday use.

pictographic narrative – Symbols, totems, and emblems which can convey expressions of personal and group identity as well as spiritual or military experiences. In some Native American tribes, this symbolic language was so highly evolved that individuals could “read” about one another by examining the pictures on robes, tipis, and shields without needing any accompanying oral explanation.

realism – A new commitment to the truthful, accurate representation of American life as it was experienced by ordinary Americans infused literature with a “realist” aesthetic in the last half of the nineteenth century. Realism was characterized by its uncompromising, literal representations of the particularities of the material world and the human condition. This passion for finding and presenting the truth led many American practitioners of realism to explore characters, places, and events that had never before seemed appropriate subject matter for literature.

regionalism – An expression of the realist aesthetic, regionalism emphasized the particularities of geographic settings, evoking the distinctive customs, speech, and culture of specific regions of the United States. This attention to the peculiarities of place flourished after the Civil War, perhaps as a celebration of the new unification of a country long divided by political, racial, and religious differences. Regional realism may also have developed in response to the rapid post war industrialization and homogenization that was destroying older, traditional ways of life. By chronicling the specific details of regional culture, regional realism preserved a record of ways of life and habits of speech that were suddenly in danger of disappearing as a result of the newspapers, railroads, and mass-produced consumer goods that were standardizing American culture and taste.

syllabary – First developed by Sequoyah for the Cherokee language, syllabaries were written scripts that included characters for the vowel and consonant sounds of individual Native American languages. Syllabaries enabled some Native Americans to write in their own languages.

trickster – Usually depicted as an animal, the “trickster” is a recurring figure in human cultures. Characterized by paradox, duality, cleverness, shape-shifting, duplicity, and a knack for survival, trickster figures seem to be universally appealing in their ability to assert their individuality and shatter boundaries and taboos. From traditional African American folktales about Brer Rabbit, Brer Tortoise, and the Signifying Monkey to Native American fables about Coyote, Raven, and Iktomi the Spider, trickster tales have served as powerful cultural expressions of ethnic identity.

yellow journalism – A term coined in the 1890s to describe the sensationalist, irresponsible journalistic tactics the papers adopted in their attempts to outsell one another. Such tactics included reporting false or embellished stories, reporting only one side of a controversy, and using visual novelties such as banner headlines and color inserts to attract readers.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Banta, Martha. Imagining American Women: Ideas and Ideals in Cultural History. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Grier, Katherine C. Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Krupat, Arnold, ed. New Voices in Native American Literary. Criticism Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1993.

Michelson, Bruce. Literary Wit. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2000.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States,. 1877-1919 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1993.

American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.

Swann, Brian, ed. Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

Wong, Hertha Dawn. Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Further Resources
American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum. Curated by Stacy C. Hollander and Brooke Davis Anderson. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Carnes, Mark C. Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Gilbert, James. Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Kaplan, Amy, and Donald Pease. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York: Abrams, 1994.

Mark Twain [videorecording]. Produced by Dayton Duncan & Ken Burns; written by Dayton Duncan & Geoffrey C. Ward; directed by Ken Burns; produced in association with WETA, Washington, DC. Burbank: Warner Home Video, 2001.

Nye, David. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

Thomas Eakins: An American Realist [actual and virtual exhibit]. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19130. Main museum number: (215) 763-8100. Thomas Eakins [catalog], organized by Darrel Sewell with essays by Kathleen A. Foster [et al.]. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale UP, 2001.

Weinberg, H. Barbara. American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 [exhibit]. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

Units